Yes, that's our first headline in some time without the word "Giro" in it. Hell, I won't even re-use our awesome Giro graphics for the moment, just to give the eye a rest. There's only one hitch, and it involves tricolore socks over one's horns...
Anyway, we have ourselves one hell of a maglia rosa battle brewing, the likes of which are unseen 'round these parts in a few years. OK, two years. And last year's Tour was also pretty wide-open. Anyway, it's good to see a quorum of well-matched superstars battle it out on more or less equal terms. Let's start with a Power Poll -- and remember, this is a forward-looking assessment of where things stand. Otherwise, well, you can look up the GC without my help. [No trend arrows; this is round one.] Here we go.
1. Levi Leipheimer, Astana
PdC Pre-Race Nugget: "If he is at his peak, Levi could easily blast the ITT and follow wheels the rest of the race, and just salt it away in the final ride to Rome."
And now...? Sitting pretty. The only guys he should worry about are either seven seconds ahead of him, or trailing. His advantages over Menchov in the remaining stages are slim to nothing, so he will have his work cut out, but I see two factors in his favor. One, the final time trial in Rome is totally flat, which suits him better than anyone else on this list. And two, Levi got into his current position despite the fact that his typical game plan calls for a third-week peak. If he's holding back at all, then he is sitting more than pretty. He's bellissimo.
Girbecco says: Buy American!
The rest... on the flip!
2. Denis Menchov, Rabobank
PdC Pre-Race Nugget: "[I]f he gets an advantage and can follow wheels over the last week, well, he's done it before in a three-week race, which is more than you can say for most of the guys on this list."
And now...? And how. A brief history of Denis Menchov's grand tour victories:
* 2005 Vuelta: snags lead in stage one, gives it up for a week, regains it in the first big climb on stage 9, and only surrenders it to Eufemio... er, Roberto Heras in the final week before the controllers give it back to Mencho.
* 2007 Vuelta: snags lead on the first major climb, stage 9, and holds it to Madrid with a mountain stage win and second-place on the last ITT.
* 2009 Giro: snags stage win in first week and... well, TBD. But Menchov is content to make early moves and hold on. If he bests Levi on stage 10 or 12 and gets into pink, they'll have to literally rip the jersey off his back.
3. Carlos Sastre, Cervelo
PdC Pre-Race Nugget: Comparing him to Menchov... "In both cases, they routinely do NOT win grand tours unless and until it suits their abilities to a T -- but in each case they are capable of sealing the deal when the conditions are right for them. This Giro isn't right for Carlos, ergo he won't win. It's right for Menchov, almost, so we'll see about that."
And now...? Obviously he rode well today but he didn't seek to gain any advantage that he might enjoy on the climbs. Unlike Menchov, but more like Levi, Sastre is all about week three. If he stays close on the Cinque Terre ITT, then he has a clear shot to duplicate his Alpe d'Huez glory on the Block Haus. Nobody's pathway to victory is more obvious. If nothing else, Sastre has proven he's not here to just get in his miles. Among these first three, you could easily call it a toss-up... or even go with the guy who won a Tour.
Girbecco says: Better win now, Carlos. Between the black kit and Alberto Contador, it'll get much hotter in July.
4. Ivan Basso, Liquigas
PdC Pre-Race Nugget: "His time trialing has never been spectacular. That said, the last time he rode one in the Giro, he took second (to, ahem, Ullrich), ahead of Marco Pinotti. Was that the real Basso? I guess we will know soon."
And now...? We haven't seen anything surprising: Basso is still terrific in the mountains, at least until the last 100 meters. Maybe slightly surprising is how Liquigas employed the old Postal strategy of trying to grind everyone to dust before the heroic leader saunters away to the win. Not sure how that will work out, except that it won't matter if he doesn't nail the time trial. His whole race hangs in the balance of Stage 12, or a HUUUUGE mountain escape.
5. Danilo Di Luca, Lpr
PdC Pre-Race Nugget: "if Di Luca somehow hangs with the guys on the top of the leaderboard over the first half of the course (say, through some time bonuses and end-of-stage attacks), the third-week climbs are both at lower altitude, starting at sea level, and consist of home turf (Block Haus) or a good grade for him (Vesuvio). If the climbing on the Cinque Terre stage keeps him in contention, with his clever team it just might all come together for Il Killer."
And now...? Maglia rosa for the moment, at least until Columbia start plotting some shenanigans. Still, end-of-stage time bonuses are surely God's gift to the Killer of Spoltore (a very weird turn of phrase). I've already talked about his chances of hanging on by his fingernails in the final week, just like he managed to do two years ago. No way do you rule that out, after he ascended so well today. The problem for Di Luca, however, lies in not one but both time trials. Last time he had a hill climb and a short ITT before Milan to overcome. This time, the Cinque Terre is the bigger test, but even if it comes down to Rome, he won't have the luxury of battling an aging Simoni to hold his lead; instead it'll be a guy like Levi or Menchov, who could eat his lunch.
6. Michael Rogers, Columbia
PdC Pre-Race Nugget: [crickets...] Hey, I did predict Sivtsov would drop time at the "Alpe di Suisi."
And now...? Is he having fun yet? Dismayed over missing pink-for-a-day thanks to Damiano Cunego's pedals, Rogers conceded insignificant time gaps to the bigger names today and now sits in a strong position, third overall behind Tommy Lov and the Killer. Given his history of injuries and bad luck, it's almost impossible to predict how he'll fare over the remaining mega-tests (stages 10, 12, 17). If the Pais Vasco is any guide, the answer is meh-solid!-meh, which probably doesn't get it done. This is a three week race, his first in two years, but he's got another month of training in his legs since the PV.
7. David Arroyo, Caisse d'Epargne
PdC Pre-Race Nugget: "Stealth. Steady performance. Not a bad course for him. There aren't many riders in the race who do everything well.... He has to be considered a longshot for a podium, even though he's almost certain to be hanging around. Just doesn't stand out enough in the climbs."
And now...? Nothing screams excitement like "almost certain to be hanging around." Arroyo is the best of the GC guys whom nobody will ever mention. Eighth today, tenth overall... as the war of attrition progresses, he'll move up some. Often the Giro is contested by stars, which would be a good situation for him. But this year there are too many superstars, just a cut above.
8. Thomas Lövkvist, Columbia
PdC Pre-Race Nugget: [crickets]
And now...? I'm struggling with when to pull the trigger on my Holy-Shit-Lövkvist-is-the-real-deal post. Am still holding off... Tommy Lov just hasn't had the responsibility in a grand tour before. Even Bob Stapleton is calling him a "future" champion. Still, two and a half weeks from now is technically the future. And his last two grand tour ITTs were last July, when he ran 9th and 10th. Let's just say the maglia bianca may have found a permanent home.
9. Gilberto Simoni, Serramenti
PdC Pre-Race Nugget: "He's done it before.... A while ago, over inferior competition and courses featuring more extreme climbing."
And now...? And the band played on. They say your wins are measurable by who you beat? Well, he has never won a Giro over top-flite competition, so there's no reason to contemplate anything changing now.
10. Franco Pellizotti, Liquigas
PdC Pre-Race Nugget: "Not a great enough climber to make it up on the Block Haus. Then there's his illustrious teammate. I suspect Pellizotti is a true plan B, protected until the final selection, then he works for Ivan."
And now...? ... if he can. Luckily for Basso, Szmyd had already ripped everyone's legs off to the extent it was possible to do so. Unluckily for Basso, that included Pellizotti. Still, ol' Save Ferris is only 1.27 down and far too threatening to allow up the road. He is still very valuable to Roberto Amadio as a card to play, when everyone is parked on Basso's wheel.
Adios: Damiano Cunego (did anyone not see this coming?), Stefano Garzelli (ditto), Mauricio Soler (wrist injury sounds bad), Michele Scarponi/Jani Brajkovic/ Kanstantin Sivtsov (what's gonna work? TEAM work!), Dave Zabriskie (bad times), and of course Lance Armstrong (please, no more mechanicals b.s.). The only real "news" here is seeing Cunego killed off by his former teammate Szmyd. That's cycling.
Coming next poll? Laurens Ten Dam, Francesco Masciarelli, and whoever Astana's #2 is.